2012-01-30

Co.Exist

Fungi Discovered In The Amazon Will Eat Your Plastic

Polyurethane seemed like it couldn’t interact with the earth’s normal processes of breaking down and recycling material. That’s just because it hadn’t met the right mushroom yet.

The Amazon is home to more species than almost anywhere else on earth. One of them, carried home recently by a group from Yale University, appears to be quite happy eating plastic in airless landfills.

The group of students, part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory with molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, ventured to the jungles of Ecuador. The mission was to allow "students to experience the scientific inquiry process in a comprehensive and creative way." The group searched for plants, and then cultured the microorganisms within the plant tissue. As it turns out, they brought back a fungus new to science with a voracious appetite for a global waste problem: polyurethane.

The common plastic is used for everything from garden hoses to shoes and truck seats. Once it gets into the trash stream, it persists for generations. Anyone alive today is assured that their old garden hoses and other polyurethane trash will still be here to greet his or her great, great grandchildren. Unless something eats it.

The fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is the first anyone has found to survive on a steady diet of polyurethane alone and—even more surprising—do this in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment that is close to the condition at the bottom of a landfill.

Student Pria Anand recorded the microbe’s remarkable behavior and Jonathan Russell isolated the enzymes that allow the organism to degrade plastic as its food source. The Yale team published their findings in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology late last year concluding the microbe is "a promising source of biodiversity from which to screen for metabolic properties useful for bioremediation." In the future, our trash compactors may simply be giant fields of voracious fungi.

Who knows what the students in the rainforest will turn up next?

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92 Comments

  • What is bothersome about taking a naturally occurring fungus and putting it in an area where it doesn't naturally occurr for a certain job. What's to become of the fungus if there is nothing naturally occurring to keep tye fungus in check AFTER it has taken care of the plastic its to get rid of. There are many examples of bugs, plants, frogs and fish being introduced into areas of the world to take care of an invironment problem only to create another one. Its "sounds" like a great solution but is it.

  • Necie Reidling

    My comment is a question do we know if this fungi is not going to effect the environment because of the polyurethane that is being destroyed has to come back somehow from from this fungi. What goes in must come out. How or what wil be change from this? Just curious. A 61 year old grandmother from Florida is just a little concerned for her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

  • Chris Kenward

    I think the Mycelium will break it down so that it isnt even plastic anymore, i just dont think you could eat the mushroooms that fruited from being fed plastic but im not 100% on that, try reading Paul Stamets book called Mycelium Running, its such and interesting book about how Mycelium can save the word, ill link you to it now, its well worth a read, its so interesting :)

    http://amzn.to/1bOj9OO

    http://amzn.to/1gFKazU

    Check those books out, enjoy :)

  • Kathryn Stasiuk Riddell

    Is there a source on the anaerobic nature of this mushroom? I read their publication and the process they used included air flow.

  • Tim in SF

    Out of curiosity, what does the polyurethane break down to, once eaten by the fungus? In other words, Pestalotiopsis microspora eats the plastic, and then it poops out... what?

  • unocosmo

    I think the scary thing would be to synthesize it and patent it. When you synthesize something, after a while it breaks down and turns into something else... what that something else is, can be quite scary. I mean, look at the Monsanto Round Up weed... it's out of control killing our soil and contaminating others crops now. And who the will control the patent on it? Monsanto? I'd hate to see an unleashed Frankenstein mushroom on the market. Then again, it would be nice to get rid of all the plastic garbage. But does this give us clout to produce more plastic bullshit? 

  • Sali

    Plastic eating bacteria have been around since 70 years ago. So far, nobody gives a shit.

  • Homegrown Gomez86

    I would like to become a part of this beautiful solution. Who do I need to contact? Will donate time for quality of a better life. If not in my lifetime, at least my children's lifetime. ~Hali Gomez, Mesa, AZ
     

  • Izetta Chambers

    I have an idea to make this technological discovery work for our planet, by helping to clean up the North Pacific Gyre (the big blob of floating plastic the size of Texas).  If you are interested, email me at izetta.chambers@gmail.com.  

  • Wiafe Ofosu

    IF U HAVE AN IDEA PLS EMAIL ME I WANT TO JOIN U IN YOUR RESEARCH WORK.ofosuwiafe42@yahoo.co.uk